Three exhibitions about the future in London

Gepubliceerd op: 1 January 2012

Utopia - a Future Perfect?

What do we want now? What might our futures look like? Now, possibly more than at any time in the last twenty years, these are the two questions at the heart of contemporary thinking. The world is in recession. Over the past year, London has seen inflation, unemployment, protests on an almost monthly basis, and some of the worst rioting in memory. But the problems are not simply economic: there's a sense of decay, of something rotten at the very centre of our proudest institutions. The press, the police, Parliament, Whitehall: no longer do they form a delicate balance of productively conflicting power structures, but instead a homogeneous mass of incompetence and unpunished criminality. It's hardly surprising then that today's artists are responding to this bleak present with works that think about our possible futures.

January alone has seen three of London's newer and more interesting commercial galleries open exhibitions that, more or less explicitly, explore ideas around the future as a projected ideal or fantasy. It's certainly the right time of year - after the retrospective pontificating of December, January is traditionally a time for starting afresh and looking ahead.

What's interesting, however, is that while politicians and the media espouse or oppose change on the basis of the immediately ensuing future, artists are persistently putting this logic into question. To some extent, any question of reform - any re-evaluation of what we now want - necessitates a vision of an ideal future, some kind of utopian projection. But it's a necessity fraught with difficulty. Breese Little's current exhibition, ‘Back to the Future', explores the idea that we might have to look back as much as we look forward; whilst at Edel Assanti, Gordon Cheung curates a group show entitled ‘Immortal Nature' that examines erroneous past predictions about the end of the world. In both cases, the works on show ironise the past's conceptions of the future, thereby implicitly putting into question not only the accuracy but also the purpose of our own hopes and assumptions about the future.

The Future's History
One show in particular traces this logical difficulty back to what one might hesitantly term its origin: Thomas More's vastly influential, and ceaselessly strange ‘Utopia'. First published in 1516, the book divides into two sections - the first a series of fictional letters between real contemporary figures, the second an account of a journey to a mystical island and an exploration of its social mores. With its multiple framing devices the text is a kind of hall of mirrors - constantly undercutting itself with layers of irony and ambiguity. The very title - Utopia - is a neologism that stems from the Greek word ‘topos' (meaning ‘place') combined with a conflation of two prefixes: ‘eu' (meaning ‘good' or ‘well') and ‘ou' (meaning ‘no'). So, right at the origin of the very concept of utopia, is an equivocation. Utopia is always, to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, "something evermore about to be".
This is exactly what the current exhibition at Hoxton Art Gallery is examining. Entitled appropriately ‘Utopia', the show features work across a range of media, including James Bacchi-Andreoli's otherworldly photographs of the urban landscape; Steven Dickie's digital/analogue conversations; and the space-age aesthetic of David Jones' paintings.
Head of Gallery, Lydia Cowpertwait stresses the labour-intensive nature of the works on show - something which characterises the works at Edel Assanti and Breese Little too. "People are starting to value craftsmanship again," she says, "and things that are handmade rather than mass-produced." The branded corporate take-over that accompanied the boom years is being replaced by a privileging of the local and the sustainable, as people begin to "go against society's consumerist grain".

Modernity in Ruins
Of particular relevance are the paintings and drawings of German-born artist Wieland Payer. Shrouded in a veil of nostalgia, these works portray the future as it may once have been imagined: monumental architectural structures discovered decaying in exotic jungles. As Cowpertwait explains: "Payer deals with the concept of Utopia in the most literal sense. The artist depicts explorers travelling through vast landscapes with peculiar Brutalist-like structures rising above wild fantastical forests."
The presence of this kind of architecture is no coincidence. As Payer says himself: "There is a strong link between utopian ideals and the architecture of the 1930s through to the 1970s - Art Deco, International Style, Brutalism. Subsequently architecture lost this spirit, or so it seems to me."
It is exactly this spirit and its subsequent loss that lies at the heart of today's attempts to think around the idea of Utopia. With the failure of the Modernist project came Postmodernism's rejection of any utopian spirit, and any thinking about the future was simply ironised to extinction. Modernism saw only Eutopia - the good place that justified the twentieth century's worst atrocities - whilst Postmodernism saw only Outopia - no place that could exist, an illusion, a promise false from the start. Each view is as limited as the other; now is the time to move beyond such oppositions.

Back to the Future
But, first, it's important to point out that the dream of a better future is nothing new; nor are the limitations of that dream. As Cowpertwait observes, "The concept of Utopia has taken many forms, whether being discussed in political philosophy, science fiction or even the Bible." At the same time, the idea of Utopia has lent itself well to satire - from Samuel Butler's ‘Erewhon' to Orwell's ‘Animal Farm' and ‘1984'. In the seventeenth century, Milton and Marvell both explored Eden's self-contradictions whilst Nicolas' Poussin's repetition of the phrase ‘Et in Arcadia Ego', etched in stone, serves a similar function. Even in Arcadia, death is here.
What is new though is the framing of the discussion. The question today is how to talk about Utopia - how to think about a better future, about the changes that could take us there - without resort either to Modernism's didactic idealism or the apathetic sneer of Postmodernity. One might look to the works of John Stark for a possible answer. Similar in some ways to Ged Quinn, David M Price and Katie Sims, Stark's paintings depict landscape as something pre-modern, the timelessness of which echoes the title of Edel Assanti's Immortal Nature. But Stark's is a landscape rich in open-ended symbolism, as the works directly confront the problems of both Modernism and Postmodernism.
For Stark, utopia "is always and only an abstract concept driven by the idea of progress and the fear of what the future holds." But today especially it's also a concept that is both necessary and unavoidable: it is Jacques Derrida's notion of the "democracy to come", the performative promise that we all must share in.

Vantage Points
The interesting thing - and it's the problem of any attempt to write about the now - is the inability to find a vantage point. Stark agrees that "many artists are dealing with utopian ideals born from science fiction narratives and looking back to a lost time of how we thought the future would be." This kind of approach is clear from the retro-futurist aesthetic evident in works by Rowena Hughes and Viktor Timofeev at Breese Little's show; in Gordon Cheung's juxtaposition of Greek and Roman mythology with a kind of computer game aesthetic; and Jonah Freeman's trompe l'oeil-images that imagine how classical civilisations of the past might have imagined the future to look like. That Freeman's works take the form of digital prints made to look like fragments of ancient parchment makes a subtle point about our own assumptions. Just as the images of the future are rooted in the supposed time in which they were envisioned; so the artwork that created them is a product of contemporary technological innovation. We may feel superior to our predecessors but the present is always a prison.
Stark says something similar. Whilst he agrees that there is a concerted attempt to move beyond the Modernist/Postmodernist paradigm, he is also wary of hasty assumptions. "There is definitely a reformation going on," he says, "but we can't see it yet. There's an unfathomable amount of information flying around and so much noise - maybe we'll get a quiet spot in ten years or so and be able to look back and see where we went wrong, again."
It is this consciousness of the inevitability of going wrong that separates today's explorations of Utopia from Modernism, but a refusal to let that inevitability result in a sense of futility that defines a move away from Postmodernism. I think it's in this that we can begin already to discern something - the shape of the argument to come perhaps.
The prognosis is still unclear. Whether capitalism is in crisis (as the FT pondered in January) or whether capitalism is crisis (as one banner at Occupy London's St Paul's camp has it), any thinking about today's systemic problems necessitates a vision of how the future could look. Or rather, a series of visions: both Stark and Cowpertwait emphasise an allowance for individual concepts of utopia in a way prohibited by Modernism's quest for purity.
But it's not only about a liberal multiplicity of visions. Today's artists are demanding and enacting a mode of critical thinking that analyses the very process by which such visions are produced. The present is the place to start this thinking. The perfect future starts with the future perfect: this is what will have been.

Tom JEFFREYS

‘Utopia', till 1st of March at Hoxton Art Gallery, 64 Charlotte Road, Hoxton, London, UK. www.hoxtonartgallery.co.uk

‘Back to the Future', till 3rd of March at Breese Little, 30d Great Sutton Street, London, UK. www.breeselittle.com

‘Immortal Nature', till 3rd of March at Edel Assanti, 276 Vauxhall Bridge Road London, UK. www.edelassanti.com

 

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Utopia - a Future Perfect?

What do we want now? What might our futures look like? Now, possibly more than at any time in the last twenty years, these are the two questions at the heart of contemporary thinking. The world is in recession. Over the past year, London has seen inflation, unemployment, protests on an almost monthly basis, and some of the worst rioting in memory. But the problems are not simply economic: there's a sense of decay, of something rotten at the very centre of our proudest institutions. The press, the police, Parliament, Whitehall: no longer do they form a delicate balance of productively conflicting power structures, but instead a homogeneous mass of incompetence and unpunished criminality. It's hardly surprising then that today's artists are responding to this bleak present with works that think about our possible futures.

January alone has seen three of London's newer and more interesting commercial galleries open exhibitions that, more or less explicitly, explore ideas around the future as a projected ideal or fantasy. It's certainly the right time of year - after the retrospective pontificating of December, January is traditionally a time for starting afresh and looking ahead.

What's interesting, however, is that while politicians and the media espouse or oppose change on the basis of the immediately ensuing future, artists are persistently putting this logic into question. To some extent, any question of reform - any re-evaluation of what we now want - necessitates a vision of an ideal future, some kind of utopian projection. But it's a necessity fraught with difficulty. Breese Little's current exhibition, ‘Back to the Future', explores the idea that we might have to look back as much as we look forward; whilst at Edel Assanti, Gordon Cheung curates a group show entitled ‘Immortal Nature' that examines erroneous past predictions about the end of the world. In both cases, the works on show ironise the past's conceptions of the future, thereby implicitly putting into question not only the accuracy but also the purpose of our own hopes and assumptions about the future.

The Future's History
One show in particular traces this logical difficulty back to what one might hesitantly term its origin: Thomas More's vastly influential, and ceaselessly strange ‘Utopia'. First published in 1516, the book divides into two sections - the first a series of fictional letters between real contemporary figures, the second an account of a journey to a mystical island and an exploration of its social mores. With its multiple framing devices the text is a kind of hall of mirrors - constantly undercutting itself with layers of irony and ambiguity. The very title - Utopia - is a neologism that stems from the Greek word ‘topos' (meaning ‘place') combined with a conflation of two prefixes: ‘eu' (meaning ‘good' or ‘well') and ‘ou' (meaning ‘no'). So, right at the origin of the very concept of utopia, is an equivocation. Utopia is always, to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, "something evermore about to be".
This is exactly what the current exhibition at Hoxton Art Gallery is examining. Entitled appropriately ‘Utopia', the show features work across a range of media, including James Bacchi-Andreoli's otherworldly photographs of the urban landscape; Steven Dickie's digital/analogue conversations; and the space-age aesthetic of David Jones' paintings.
Head of Gallery, Lydia Cowpertwait stresses the labour-intensive nature of the works on show - something which characterises the works at Edel Assanti and Breese Little too. "People are starting to value craftsmanship again," she says, "and things that are handmade rather than mass-produced." The branded corporate take-over that accompanied the boom years is being replaced by a privileging of the local and the sustainable, as people begin to "go against society's consumerist grain".

Modernity in Ruins
Of particular relevance are the paintings and drawings of German-born artist Wieland Payer. Shrouded in a veil of nostalgia, these works portray the future as it may once have been imagined: monumental architectural structures discovered decaying in exotic jungles. As Cowpertwait explains: "Payer deals with the concept of Utopia in the most literal sense. The artist depicts explorers travelling through vast landscapes with peculiar Brutalist-like structures rising above wild fantastical forests."
The presence of this kind of architecture is no coincidence. As Payer says himself: "There is a strong link between utopian ideals and the architecture of the 1930s through to the 1970s - Art Deco, International Style, Brutalism. Subsequently architecture lost this spirit, or so it seems to me."
It is exactly this spirit and its subsequent loss that lies at the heart of today's attempts to think around the idea of Utopia. With the failure of the Modernist project came Postmodernism's rejection of any utopian spirit, and any thinking about the future was simply ironised to extinction. Modernism saw only Eutopia - the good place that justified the twentieth century's worst atrocities - whilst Postmodernism saw only Outopia - no place that could exist, an illusion, a promise false from the start. Each view is as limited as the other; now is the time to move beyond such oppositions.

Back to the Future
But, first, it's important to point out that the dream of a better future is nothing new; nor are the limitations of that dream. As Cowpertwait observes, "The concept of Utopia has taken many forms, whether being discussed in political philosophy, science fiction or even the Bible." At the same time, the idea of Utopia has lent itself well to satire - from Samuel Butler's ‘Erewhon' to Orwell's ‘Animal Farm' and ‘1984'. In the seventeenth century, Milton and Marvell both explored Eden's self-contradictions whilst Nicolas' Poussin's repetition of the phrase ‘Et in Arcadia Ego', etched in stone, serves a similar function. Even in Arcadia, death is here.
What is new though is the framing of the discussion. The question today is how to talk about Utopia - how to think about a better future, about the changes that could take us there - without resort either to Modernism's didactic idealism or the apathetic sneer of Postmodernity. One might look to the works of John Stark for a possible answer. Similar in some ways to Ged Quinn, David M Price and Katie Sims, Stark's paintings depict landscape as something pre-modern, the timelessness of which echoes the title of Edel Assanti's Immortal Nature. But Stark's is a landscape rich in open-ended symbolism, as the works directly confront the problems of both Modernism and Postmodernism.
For Stark, utopia "is always and only an abstract concept driven by the idea of progress and the fear of what the future holds." But today especially it's also a concept that is both necessary and unavoidable: it is Jacques Derrida's notion of the "democracy to come", the performative promise that we all must share in.

Vantage Points
The interesting thing - and it's the problem of any attempt to write about the now - is the inability to find a vantage point. Stark agrees that "many artists are dealing with utopian ideals born from science fiction narratives and looking back to a lost time of how we thought the future would be." This kind of approach is clear from the retro-futurist aesthetic evident in works by Rowena Hughes and Viktor Timofeev at Breese Little's show; in Gordon Cheung's juxtaposition of Greek and Roman mythology with a kind of computer game aesthetic; and Jonah Freeman's trompe l'oeil-images that imagine how classical civilisations of the past might have imagined the future to look like. That Freeman's works take the form of digital prints made to look like fragments of ancient parchment makes a subtle point about our own assumptions. Just as the images of the future are rooted in the supposed time in which they were envisioned; so the artwork that created them is a product of contemporary technological innovation. We may feel superior to our predecessors but the present is always a prison.
Stark says something similar. Whilst he agrees that there is a concerted attempt to move beyond the Modernist/Postmodernist paradigm, he is also wary of hasty assumptions. "There is definitely a reformation going on," he says, "but we can't see it yet. There's an unfathomable amount of information flying around and so much noise - maybe we'll get a quiet spot in ten years or so and be able to look back and see where we went wrong, again."
It is this consciousness of the inevitability of going wrong that separates today's explorations of Utopia from Modernism, but a refusal to let that inevitability result in a sense of futility that defines a move away from Postmodernism. I think it's in this that we can begin already to discern something - the shape of the argument to come perhaps.
The prognosis is still unclear. Whether capitalism is in crisis (as the FT pondered in January) or whether capitalism is crisis (as one banner at Occupy London's St Paul's camp has it), any thinking about today's systemic problems necessitates a vision of how the future could look. Or rather, a series of visions: both Stark and Cowpertwait emphasise an allowance for individual concepts of utopia in a way prohibited by Modernism's quest for purity.
But it's not only about a liberal multiplicity of visions. Today's artists are demanding and enacting a mode of critical thinking that analyses the very process by which such visions are produced. The present is the place to start this thinking. The perfect future starts with the future perfect: this is what will have been.

Tom JEFFREYS

‘Utopia', till 1st of March at Hoxton Art Gallery, 64 Charlotte Road, Hoxton, London, UK. www.hoxtonartgallery.co.uk

‘Back to the Future', till 3rd of March at Breese Little, 30d Great Sutton Street, London, UK. www.breeselittle.com

‘Immortal Nature', till 3rd of March at Edel Assanti, 276 Vauxhall Bridge Road London, UK. www.edelassanti.com

 

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Galleries On and Off

The basic problem of earning a living by making art lies in the fact that the general spending capacity of people interested in the visual arts doesn't keep up with the academies' output of artists. A surplus of saleable art being the result. Since artists have started to outnumber dealers and customers in the second half of the 19th century they've always been inventing alternative ways of distribution, thereby sidestepping dealers, auctioneers and institutions.

Nonetheless representation by a gallery is still the most established business model so far, which covers roughly only about a third of all working artists (1). As a consequence artists with no or too little gallery representation have been presenting their work on individual websites since the early 90s. During the last couple of years so called online-galleries have become heavily trafficked spaces, which raises the question which of the two formats proves more successful in establishing contacts between artists and customers.

It's the Economy, Stupid
Given that finding and being found are the primary purpose of artists' forums, participants better not get confused by the term ‘artists network'. Because those who confound a marketing tool with social exchange will share the fate of a frustrated artist, complaining on ‘Saatchi online': "After months of sending ‘friend requests' and commenting on people's work, I've received not one return message", whereupon a senior member explains that "friend requests usually mean they want you to vote for them in ‘Showdown' (2). The comments usually are ‘Hi, like your work, please vote for me in ‘Showdown' as I have voted for you.' Then you don't hear from them again."
And another commentator gets to the heart of the matter by asking the disappointed one: "Are you an artist or a collector?" (3) Which is to say: when you're an artist like everyone else, don't bother us. Whereas in case you're the man with the money, just say so and you'll find tons of friends in the blink of an eye!
Disguised as a question, this dry answer puts the common problem of all artists' forums in a nutshell: in fact nobody cares about their peer's portfolios. Artists aren't necessarily the ones artists like to get in touch with - at least not in a selling-space where colleagues turn into competitors by default. Hence even in forums in which people are invited to discuss various issues, replies frequently start with a polite nod towards the conversation's official topic, followed by an in-depth introduction to the own work. All networking rhetoric aside - when it comes down to it, the main purpose is to attract people who are willing to buy art.

Is there Anybody Out there?
To what extent people are prone to look for art on a screen is difficult to tell. Mere numbers of site views don't yield any information as to the visitors' intention, and direct investigations regarding monetary efficiency don't go down particularly well with the operators. ‘Saatchi online' has a forum where things can be ‘discussed' with the company's representatives. Questions about the factual volume of sales are answered with generalities like "things have been going fairly well. Many pieces have been sold on our site." (4) Surprise, surprise.
According to a survey I've conducted in December 2011, people wishing to buy contemporary art still favour physical galleries and fairs. Although online-galleries are appreciated as a means to receive first visual impressions along with basic information, purchase decisions are preferably made offline. This leaves virtual galleries with the task to support potential customers in structuring the occasionally confusing area of contemporary art by means of categorizations and keywords that fit the client's priorities. Hence a collector's affiliation to a particular network depends greatly on the categories deployed - be it genre, technique, content or price-range. (The ‘female nudes'-section being obligatory among all of them.)
Other unique characteristics compared to bricks and mortar galleries are access unimpeded by time or space along with usually lower prices. For a fee individual advise is available, although the credentials of the mysterious ‘art consultants' are not exactly specified. Also information on the site's operators is rarely exposed at great length. The clients' wish to be presented with a range of items matching their particular requirements is frequently accommodated by a proposal of related products - a choice which tends to follow pretty elusive criteria.

Quality Maintenance
Speaking of elusiveness, the transparency of criteria is a general trouble spot (not only) of online galleries. For despite almost infinite storage room, they too have to pick in order to ensure a certain level of quality. Thus certain methods of selection are required. The fact that the persons in charge reserve the right to delete works which don't fit the gallery's profile is self-evident since each forum is free to mark their territory by in- or excluding crafts - design or fashion for instance. But even focusing on ‘genuine' arts leaves a huge amount of work to be sorted. And since viewers testify to feeling overwhelmed by unstructured bulks of images, most portals conduct pre-selections in order to narrow down the choice. Criteria according to which persons and works are highlighted usually remain unspoken. While at Saatchi's director Wilson makes no pretence of being the one and only in command, in the majority of cases the juries remain obscure.
In addition to being judged by a jury, there's also the model of having artists and galleries pay a fee to become premium members, which includes entering more material and to do so in prominent positions. Still another way to control growth without curatorial intervention is to allow only those new members who are invited by current ones.
Asked about the average number of images people use to process at a stretch, it turned out that the recipients' endurance doesn't depend so much on whether the pictures are displayed on- or offline as rather on individual habits of consumption in general. Whoever is able to cope with the solid mass of art accumulated at biennials or fairs will also be prepared to watch an equal amount transformed into terabytes.

What's the Point?
But what exactly makes artists flock to online portals? An obvious reason is the opportunity of an ancillary way of promotion in addition to individual homepages. For those can only be looked up as long as the host's name is known to the person searching, whereas indexes installed by online-galleries list works irrespective of the artist's name, hence enabling clients to look for certain kinds of art without being confined to artists they're already familiar with.
Large networks like ‘ArtSlant' invite gallery owners to be indexed in terms of artistic focal points or location. While they are free to enter existing web-addresses, they are also invited to present their business in a special format. Like all services apart from the very basic membership this new homepage is either charged directly or indirectly via commissions charged by the operators. The main advantage to adjust to the homogeneous layout of a common platform consists in the possibility to benefit from the online-gallery's large audience by simultaneously presenting one's own artists within a protected area as it were - off the colourful jungle out there. Further functions include more or less comprehensive calendars, venues, readers' reviews on books and shows along with press releases as well as how-to pages on photographing, packaging, pricing and taxing of art.

The Image and the Damage Done
Among all kinds of art shown online, two-dimensional works make up the majority, probably because they're easier to reproduce than three-dimensional pieces. However most artists agree that even high res images don't do justice to the original. While ‘alla prima' painting can be transferred onto the screen quite authentically, techniques involving the slow application of different layers of paint cannot be captured by photography. The massive implications caused by slight shifts of colour are known to everyone who ever compared several versions of the ‘same' picture on different sites.
Despite these disadvantages inherent in reproductions, technical capabilities of scrutinizing paintings have clearly improved. In the case of Google's ‘Art Project' the screen allows for an even far more detailed view than one would get in front of the original.
However regardless of reproductions' high quality, there remains the loss of corporeality. Strictly speaking whenever colour is applied to a surface the result isn't flat any more. Even when liquid paint is completely absorbed by an unprimed canvas, it still is a three-dimensional object. Traditionally this ‘objecthood' of the allegedly immaterial surface has already been stressed by shaped canvases. Yet as soon as the tangible being is made into an image, its materiality vanishes and the physical being becomes an abstract apparition. This shift from analogue to digital reality is the reason for a number of photographers and film makers to return to analogue photography and films on celluloid. Ultimately jpgs are just spectres of something which in fact is definitely not a file.

Charlotte LINDENBERG


* * *
(1) "It is estimated that 2,500 - 5,000 artists actually have gallery representation, and another 800,000 - 1 million talented artists across the globe do not. So we decided to skip the formalities of the traditional gallery structure and connect the people around the globe who create art with the people who want to collect it. Today Saatchi Online is a place where collectors, art lovers and everyone in between can discover and buy work from artists in over 100 countries from South of the Equator to Europe, India, China, Russia and the US." http://www.saatchionline.com/about
(2) Under the title ‘Showdown' Saatchi organizes a competition set up of three rounds. During the first one all ‘valid' submissions are voted upon by all members of the network. The top 300 are then presented to a jury who selects 30 favourites of which an appointed judge (currently Wangechi Mutu) chooses the first (1000 US dollar) and second (500 US dollar) best.
(3) www.saatchionline.com/forums#/discussion/262/not-a-very-friendly-place
(4) www.saatchionline.com/forums#/discussion/4/introduction
(5) Shortly after writing this I was informed about the demise of Helen Frankenthaler who's an excellent example of this ‘superflat' way of painting.

 

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A life in paint

Flesh, nudity and promiscuity characterize the ‘Lucian Freud portraits' exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Freud was born in Berlin in 1922 by Jewish parents and emigrated to London with his family to escape Nazism in 1933. He lived in the UK for all his life, becoming a giant of modern art and an iconic figure of the British contemporary art. The ongoing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery has been planned since 2007, when the artist and Sarah Howgate, the curator of the exhibition, planned to stage a chronological display of Lucian Freud's artistic production.

This is Freud's first exhibition that focuses on his portraits and it comprises 130 paintings and works on paper spanning the seven decades of his prolific artistic career, from the early 1940s until the very last day of his life. Unfortunately, the artist suddenly died on 20 July 2011 at the age of 88, a few months before the opening of the exhibition. 

Although the theme of nudity is central to most of the works at display, it is evident that Freud's art slowly developed throughout the years. His first works, dating back to the 40s and 50s, recall elements of surrealism typical of portraits' painters of the time, but he soon abandoned such style to experiment with new techniques as the ‘impasto' based on cleaning the brush off colour after each stroke. These experimentations led to develop a style based on intense brushes and thick layers of paint that became the hallmark of the artist's latest portraits.
Freud's subjects are primarily his extended family, friends, lovers and, occasionally, himself. Sarah Howgate interprets Freud's portraits as the realization in paint of a personal relationship between the artist and the person of the painting that slowly developed over time. According to Howgate "his friends, family and acquaintances have always been eclectic, drawn from all walks of life, and this is reflected in the variety of faces and bodies that occupy Freud's paintings. Although many of his subjects have led complex lives, most of them - with the exception of a few public figures - prefer to hold on to their anonymity. Lucian Freud Portraits is a life represented in paint rather than a biographical retrospective."

EARLY WORK
This exhibition displays Lucian Freud's works in 10 rooms adjacent to the National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection. Rooms 1, 2 and 3 showcase works that cover the period from the 40s to the 70s. The highlights in this section are the two portraits of Kitty Garman, Freud's first wife, one entitled ‘Girl with Roses' 1947-48 made during Kitty's pregnancy, and the other entitled ‘Girl with a White Dog' 1950-51, completed not long before the couple separated. Both paintings highlight the surrealism phase that characterized the artist early productions. Works in room 2 highlight a new phase in Freud's production, where he began to draw more attention to the details of the subject as in ‘Woman Smiling' 1958-9, in which the face of his former student and lover Suzy Boyt becomes a land to be conquered in all its changing hues and shifting textures. Also, he started painting the complete figure instead of the head as in ‘The Painter's Mother Reading' 1975 and ‘The Painter's Mother Resting' 1976, which portrait the artist's mother with astonishing attention to body detail and smoothness.
In room 4, just opposite the exhibition entrance, is displayed one of the exhibition's highlights ‘Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau),' a large scale portrait of his lover Celia Paul, daughter Bella and ex-lover Suzy Boyt with her son Kai. The composition is inspired by a small painting by the 18th century French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau that portray a pierrot teased by a group of flirting women. The only link among the subjects is the artist himself and the portrait clearly shows the promiscuity that marked Freud's life. In fact, the artist holds several accounts of love affairs and children, 14 of them formally recognized, but probably many more still unrecognized.

BODIES
Room 5, 6 and 7 include his portrait ‘Reflection (self-portrait)' 1985, a particularly introspective work that he painted when he was in his sixties, and ‘Esther' 1982-83, the last portrait he made of his mother laying on a bed and dressed in white, recalling the typical posture for such subject from famous artists in the past. Rooms 8, 9 and 10, propose an overview of the last twenty years of Freud's life. In this section the nudes are the main subject of the paintings. Room 8 is devoted to Sue Tilley's, whose large body is painted in several portraits, such as ‘Benefit Supervisor Resting'1994, ‘Benefit Supervisor Sleeping' 1995 and ‘Sleeping by the Lon Carpet' 1996. The series of portrait draw Sue Tilley's asleep, lying languidly on the sofa, expressing femininity despite the proportions. These portraits underline Freud's predilection towards people of unusual or strange proportions. Room 10 hosts portraits of David Lawson, his assistant, Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, his riding companion, and painter David Hockney, among many other subjects drawn from acquaintances. All of them propose human bodies of a spectacular, unusual scale.

The exhibition ends with Lucian Freud's last portrait ‘Portrait of the Hound,' which features Freud's assistant and long-time friend, David Dawson, and Dawson's whippet, Eli. He worked on the subject for four years until he was too frail to draw, and the portray remains unfinished. Despite his notoriety, Freud worked incessantly for all his life with the enthusiasm and the energy of a young artist, painting in his studio family members and acquaintances until the very last day of his existence. This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is a tribute to Freud's iconic art.

Romina PROVENZI

‘Lucian Freud - Portraits' till May 27th at the National Portrait Gallery. St Martin's Place, WC2H 0HE Londen. www.npg.org.uk.

 

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